The Emerging Order: God in the Age of Scarcity


The Emerging Order: God in the Age of Scarcity

Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours

1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson

Book Review


The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson

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The Emerging Order: God in the Age of Scarcity

by Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard

1979, G.P.Putnam Sons


Rifkin (hereafter R.) draws a comparison between our age, with all its economic uncertainty and crumbling world-view, to the age of the Reformation. In this comparison, R. finds some striking parallels.

The time of the Reformation was a time of great social upheavals. The feudal economic system, which was a "steady-state" economy, had kept Europe stable for over 700 years. The economy, however, was in transition. With the rise of trade with the East and of the trade guilds, the economy was changing from an agrarian, no-growth, economy, to an expanding, growing economy that relied on trade and the production of goods, and upon capital expenditures to finance trade. The old order was coming to an end.

But also, the sacred canopy, (the unifying, Catholic, explanation of the world), was rent: the explanations that used to satisfy, no longer satisfied the hunger of the people for a sense of meaning and purpose. R. attributes this uncertainty to the fact that the plague decimated a third of the population in the 1300-1400's. Before the plagues, the Church had provided the people with a sense of security and comfort; it provided regularity and rhythm in the sacraments. And the priests seemed to have knowledge and understanding, which allowed the people to trust the regulation of society to this special class.

But, when the plague attacked the feudal society, it attacked without rhyme or reason, and the church was unable to explain it or prevent it or control it. And so the basic ability of the Church to monitor society was brought into question, and the people then began to seek some answer that would give them a sense of personal security in the face of life's chaotic assault.

It is this time of economic transition and philosophical uncertainty, which provided the fertile soil for the Reformation. The Reformation allowed the people to establish a new sacred canopy (Calvinism and Lutheranism), and it gave them a new sense of security in personal salvation and in a personal relationship with God. Beyond that, Calvinism provided a new theological foundation for an expansionary economy: it approved of hard work and allowed for the accumulation of personal wealth, and it permitted the banking industry.

Presently, we are in a time of economic transition, and we are having to create a new world-view.

R.'s thesis is that our expansionary economy is running into limits everywhere. The liberal (I use this term economically, not politically) hope, that we could continue to create more and more wealth and that the possibilities for material prosperity are infinite, is running into a log jam: we are facing an age of scarcity. We are running out of natural resources, and the very productivity we banked on is producing so many chemical pollutants that we are threatening to destroy ourselves with success.

His main thesis is that we cannot continue this expansionary economy, and that as we face the dwindling sources of raw materials, our economy will contract, and we will not have the money to provide for the services we are used to. And the problem is, both Democrats and Republicans are products of a liberal economic world-view, and neither realize that we are in an age of transition. Both liberals and democrats are arguing over how to cut up the pie on a sinking ship. Democrats bank on an expansionary economy to fund the ever expanding social services they see as necessary for their constituents. Republicans bank on an expansionary economy to provide more wealth at the top to provide investment capital. But both are blind to the fact that the age of expansion is over, and neither are prepared to provide a new covenant of economics for the future.

Also, the new priesthood, of economists and scientists, is failing to assuage the anxiety of society as it faces times of economic uncertainty and world-wide destruction through pollution, nuclear weapons, and disease. Science, which used to have all the answers, now is in as much question as the Catholic priests of old. Why? Because most of our problems, instead of being solved by science, can be attributed to science: pollution (industry), cancer (chemical contaminants, also a disease for which our high priests can find no cure), ozone depletion (chemical contaminants), nuclear weapons (scientific ingenuity). Now scientists are looked on with suspicion, instead of trust and hope. Therefore, people are seeking a new meaning to life, a new sacred canopy which will provide as much security as the Reformation did in its day.

What is the new order? R. postulates that the evangelical-charismatic movements are providing a new view of the world, which is as radically different from the present as Reformation theology was from Catholicism: Charismatics question science as the final authority for interpreting reality. Charismatics believe in the power of God to work in the present as in the past, with healings, miracles, prophecy, and the supra-rational communion of individual and God, including worship in tongues. Evangelicals, meanwhile, are providing a new covenant vision, not based upon the old dominion theology (of raping the earth by exploiting its resources to further material and social gains) but upon the new dominion theology of stewardship ( a steady-state theory). Included in this new theology is a belief in ecology, a limit to resources and to the accumulation of material goods.

Warning: if this new movement does not provide a new covenant with God, both economically and socially, states R., it could fall prey to fascism, and easily become a servant of a reactionary wealthy-class that would use religion to justify the exploitation of third world nations to ensure a sufficient supply of natural resources to the U.S.

Weaknesses of the book: shallow analysis of Calvinism; very weak in revealing how this new covenant theology would be applied in our economic system to change it from expansionary to steady-state. Buys in to the fears of doom sayers who deny God is the provider of resources necessary to sustain life. Therefore, the conclusions about over population are based not upon Genesis ("be fruitful and multiply") but upon the fear that people are the problem and children are a curse and not a blessing of God (that is the thesis of the population control movement which has infected the ecology and environmental movements). While unbridled greed and selfishness is a problem revealed in consumeristic materialism, godly prosperity is not an evil when accompanied by generosity and compassion.

Many other good sections of the book: shows how every great social movement over the past 300 years has been spawned through religious revival in our country, including the American Revolution, abolition of slavery, feminism, and civil rights. Shows also how America's present religious awakening could be the spawning ground for this new emerging social and economic order.

A couple of other interesting theses: The rise of utilitarian government, laizez-faire economics, and scientific empiricism provided the expansionary economy with a liberal philosophy of social improvement through ever increasing material wealth; i.e., the betterment of society as a whole can best be achieved through the pursuit of material self-interest. Thus, as government allows more and more people to accumulate wealth, society will become happier and more fulfilling for all. But it hasn't worked. Even in our wealthy society, our poor (who are richer than most on earth) are still dissatisfied, and the wealthy are still self interested and sometimes exploitive. And industrialism (1860-1975) leads not to happiness, but to alienation as people are divided from the product of their labor. Our transition from an agrarian nation to an urbanized, industrial one has created as deep an anxiety in our populace as did the plagues before the Reformation.

As scientific empiricism and materialism fail to provide us with a suitable answer to the question of the meaning of life, we begin to look beyond reason and materialism for some new consensus of meaning: thus economic transition, uncertainty, and social instability provide the best soil for religious revival. Therefore, we could be heading toward the greatest revival since the Reformation. Let's hope.

This utilitarian ethic of the pursuit of property (materialism) was balanced in former times by the Christian moral consensus that was prevalent in our culture. With that consensus gone, this ethic has deteriorated into an unbridled hedonism and materialism. It is destroying our society as the radical individualism it produces destroys family structures and our sense of social responsibility. Our god is our "rights," which we see have become the rallying cry of every minority and socially perverse group – some cries are legitimate, but others only seek to justify their immorality.

However, this ethic of "rights" has become the engine which drives both Republican and Democratic philosophy and has become the touch-stone of conscience for the media and the left. It is almost impossible, then to reinstitute a moral standard upon which the laws of society can be adjudged. Without a basis in a Christian moral tradition, all appeals to an ultimate or absolute standard of just conduct seem weak and hollow.

Therefore, we need a religious revival which will restore a foundation for social ethics in our society; if we do not have such, surely we are doomed to destruction. If this revival sweeps our country, there is a chance that our covenant vision can be restored, as one nation under God.

We also need then, a new covenant vision of the purpose of economics to replace our consumeristic materialism (utilitarian hedonism) — a vision based upon our relationship to God which reveals us a stewards of our resources, not as people who must serve our appetites in an ever-increasing cycle of over-consumption.

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